Ask an Astronaut!

Thursday, April 29 at 10:00AM Pacific

The Naval Postgraduate School Presents… Ask an Astronaut! In honor of Month of the Military Child, NPS is providing an opportunity for military children, students across Monterey County, and viewers to pose their questions to three former NASA astronauts, who combined are the veterans of 11 Space Shuttle missions. The astronauts include NPS alumni Stephen Frick (M.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1994) and Daniel Bursch (M.S. in engineering science in 1991), and NPS Professor and Space Systems academic Group Chair James Newman.  


Stephen Frick, Alumnus

Selected by NASA in April 1996, Frick reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1996. After initial Space Shuttle crew training to qualify for flight assignment as a pilot, he has served in many capacities in the Astronaut Office including lead capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the STS-114 return to flight mission, ascent and entry CAPCOM for multiple launches and landings, and Chief of the Safety Branch. Outside of the Astronaut Office, Frick has served as liaison to NASA HQ for return-to-flight activities after the Columbia accident, and the Orion Spacecraft Project Flight Crew Testing Lead. Currently he is serving as Chief of the Astronaut Office Exploration Branch. A veteran of two spaceflights, Captain Frick has logged over 565 hours in space. He served as pilot on STS-110 in 2002, and was the crew commander on STS-122 in 2008.

SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: STS-110 Atlantis (April 8-19, 2002) was the 13th Shuttle mission to visit the International Space Station. Mission milestones included delivery and installation of the S0 (S-Zero) Truss, first maneuvering of spacewalkers using the ISS robotic arm, and the first mission on which all spacewalks were based. The crew prepared the station for future spacewalks and spent a week in joint operations with the station’s Expedition-4 crew. The STS-110 mission lasted 10 days, 19 hours, and 42 minutes, and traveled 4.5 million statute miles in 171 Earth orbits. STS-122 Atlantis (February 7-20, 2008)


Daniel Bursch, Alumnus

Selected by NASA in January 1990, Bursch became an astronaut in July 1991. His technical assignments to date include: Astronaut Office Operations Development Branch., working on controls and displays for the Space Shuttle and Space Station; Chief of Astronaut Appearances; spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in mission control. A veteran of four space flights, Bursch has logged over 227 days in space. He was a mission specialist on STS-51 (1993), STS-68 (1994) and STS -77 (1996), and served as flight engineer on the International Space Station (ISS) Expedition-Four (2001-2002). Dan Bursch and fellow astronaut Carl Walz have on of the longest single flights for US astronauts: 196 days in space. In January 2003, Bursch reported to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA for a two-year assignment as an instructor in the Space Systems Academic Group. In June 2004 he was appointed Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Bursch retired from the Navy in July 2005 after 26 years of service. He joined the Aerospace Corporation and currently serves as the National Reconnaissance Officer (NRO) Advisor at the Naval Postgraduate School. The Space Systems Academic Group at NPS is a unique interdisciplinary association consisting of 20 faculty and 7 academic chairs. His primary responsibility is to ensure that education and research at NPS supports the mission of the NRO, and he serves as a professor in several space systems courses.

Andy Hernandez

Associate Professor Alejandro (Andy) Hernandez
Systems Engineering Department

Alejandro (Andy) Hernandez is an Associate Professor in the Systems Engineering Department at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the U.S. Military Academy, a M.S. and Ph.D in Operations Research from NPS, and a M.A. in Strategic Studies from the Army War College. He is a retired Army officer whose assignments include Director of Analysis & Assessment – Iraq, and Chief of the Warfighting Analysis Division in the Department of the Army Programs and Resources Directorate. Dr. Hernandez focuses on developing robust decision support systems that improve design, development, operation, and management of complex systems. He applies modeling and simulation, experimentation, and scenario methodologies in his efforts. His studies are inherently cross-disciplinary and promote systems thinking.

Can you tell us a little about your current research and how you have been able to work around the COVID restrictions?

I have a number of interests, but the majority of them involve the development of decision support systems. I merge a number of techniques including scenario methodologies and wargames, computer simulation, experimentation, and statistical analysis.

Some of my sponsors are the Marine Forces Reserve, NAVFAC, and Army Engineer Research and Development Center. Frequently, my sponsors wish to address a number of topics. Therefore, I normally form and lead research teams to provide a comprehensive set of solutions. In a COVID environment, the majority of our engagements have been virtual. While difficult, we have been able to make progress. We have had to forgo face-to-face discussions and in-progress reviews. In cases that require an interview, the inability to meet personally make “reading” and “reacting” to an interviewee’s responses difficult. The team has adjusted with iterative virtual meetings in Teams. There is value in this technique, but can be taxing to the interviewees.

There are some cases where there is no alternative to a direct engagement. I found myself in a situation where a product needed to be repaired. After a period of troubleshooting remotely, it became evident that we were not making progress. There were too many people and sections in the organization that had introduced errors to the system. I requested a waiver to travel. The NPS leadership understood the importance of delivering quality products to customers and approved my request. I was able to work with the organization for two days to trace the errors and find solutions.

You received your MS and PhD from NPS. How have you seen NPS grow from the time you were a student here?

On the surface, the look of NPS has changed. Students no longer wear coat and tie to class. Graduate Schools and Deans have been established. New processes and administrative levels have been added with mixed effects. Technology has been a value to course delivery, especially in animating theories and concepts. And technology has certainly come to the rescue in this current environment. With the exception of PhD students, most students at NPS would have had little knowledge about research efforts at the school. Today, research has emerged as a catalyst for discovering and presenting new ideas to faculty and students.

What has not changed is the dedication of faculty and staff to deliver the very best education to the students. It would be newsworthy if there was an instance in which a faculty member refused an opportunity to meet with a student. I do not believe that this would be the case in a civilian university.

You get a lot of (virtual) facetime with NPS students.  How would you describe the collective student body?

Virtual or not, the NPS student population is unique. NPS students are by and large older than their civilian counterparts. Their life experiences, which includes combat and leadership roles at a relatively young age, open opportunities for dialogue about course topics that you would not normally have in a civilian classroom. Imagine being able to discuss the reliability of a communications network. Reliability no longer means just an equation jotted on a whiteboard or PowerPoint slide. Reliability now means the probability that you will lose connectivity and the ability to defend your people, equipment, and facilities, or conversely, the probability of death, loss, and destruction. The discussion takes on a whole new meaning.

In general, our students have a mission when they arrive at NPS: transform themselves into experts that can successfully perform in their next assignment. This seems somewhat trite, but it is still true. The students, and we at NPS, have a common responsibility: produce a professional who will succeed at their job. The sponsors who pay for the students’ education and the US population who pay all of our salaries demand it.

What advice can you offer new students?

In terms of work, treat the time at NPS as any duty assignment, except you get to start later, come home earlier, and most of your weekends and holidays are yours! Therefore, whatever amount of time that you stay on campus, use it wisely. Dedicate the time to read and do homework while you are not in the classroom. Minimize what you need to take home.

READ purposefully. You must become voracious readers. Learn how to learn.

Try new activities. You will undoubtedly be busy with classwork, but it would be a rarity if you did not have any free time. The area has opportunities for kayaking, surfing, rock climbing, theater, golf. There are groups galore of different activities such as biking and dancing. There are a myriad of different types of food in hundreds of restaurants. Try a bite.

Monterey is a site that must be experienced. Walk the coastal and mountain trails. Visit the Aquarium. See the marine life. Get out of the house or apartment.


Alumni Spotlight

Major Lyndsey L. Horn
U.S. Air Force

Maj. Lyndsey L. Horn is a Foreign Area Officer Fellow, Office of Defense Coordination - U.S. Embassy in Mexico. She recently graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School with a Master of Arts in Security Studies (Western Hemisphere) in March 2021 and has a projected assignment as the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador in 2022. As an air attaché, Horn will act as the representative for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and be responsible for working directly with the host nation’s air force. Horn received her commission from the United States Air Force Academy in 2011 and served for eight and a half years as a public affairs officer, both overseas and in the United States. In her off time, she enjoys traveling, reading, being outdoors with friends, and drinking wine. She also hopes to have a dog (or two!) one day.

How did your time experience at NPS benefit your post-NPS career?

After NPS, where I received a Master's degree in National Security Studies - Western Hemisphere, I am projected to become the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. Basically, everything I studied through my program - the culture, history, economics, politics, and security challenges in Latin America - should assist me as I work to strengthen partnerships in the region in support of our nation's defense. Additionally, many of the students in the NSA department are projected to become foreign area officers like me, and though certainly hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, NPS allowed us to create a network of peers that we will lean on as we work in Embassies and Combatant Commands across the globe.

What are some of the most pressing issues currently facing the military and the Department of Defense (DoD)?

From my perspective as a Foreign Area Officer, our most pressing issue is building trust with partners and allies. Trust is critical to the success of global military operations - but how do you maintain trust? How do you amplify it? During my time at NPS, I spoke with many Department of Defense foreign area officers that have worked in overseas operations. These officers described a world where multi-cultural partners struggled to operate together. They provided insight into the challenges of working across federal agencies. They lambasted the misinformation that juxtaposed U.S. goals in the region (and sometimes, even, the United States would contradict its own policies). And these officers expressed heartache that it seemed that the U.S. Congress and the American people, those they work for and have sworn to protect, did not care about building allies abroad. Over the course of these conversations, one word kept jumping out at me: trust. They knew that if there is mutual trust amongst all involved entities, then a mission can succeed. And yet, in our ever polarizing and increasingly digital world, trust in the U.S. and what we stand for is diminishing, thus hindering our ability to achieve our objectives abroad.

Looking back at your career, what brings you the most pride?

If I had to leave the Air Force tomorrow, I would be most proud of being part of the teams that prioritized creativity, diversity of thought, and a willingness to fail. One of those teams exists at Travis Air Force Base, California, via their grassroots-level innovation cell called Phoenix Spark. This team did not care about your unit or your rank. They cared about your enthusiasm to learn about and to solve our service's problems. Through Phoenix Spark, they led the Air Force in additive manufacturing, augmented reality, and collaborative research with industry. We were not perfect. And we certainly made mistakes. But each week, we worked together to keep moving forward. It was innovation by the warfighter... for the warfighter.

If you could give current students one piece of advice, what would you say?

For current students, even if you are still in the distance learning environment, I would advise you to get out there and meet your peers! Of course, follow CDC guidelines, but there are still so many opportunities to meet up (even virtually) and make connections. One of my best friends at NPS I only met once in person; otherwise, we made a point to call each other on MS Teams and check in - both from an academic and personal perspective. Rarely in our lives will we ever just get to dedicate ourselves to an academic degree and we must not forget that a key aspect in that advanced degree journey is learning from our fellow students.

Ralph Wright

Master Sergeant Ralph Wright
U.S. Marine Corps

Master Sgt. Wright is a native of Liberia, West Africa. His family immigrated to the United States and he grew up in Staten Island, NY. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in February 1999 and underwent recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. Wright’s designated primary occupational specialty is (1391) Bulk Fuel Specialist. In February 2020, he was selected for the Marine Corps Foreign Area Staff Non-Commissioned Officer (FAS) Program and is currently assign to the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School. While at NPS, Wright studied Regional Security in the Middle East, SE Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

During his studies, Wright researched corruption and good governance in Sub-Saharan Africa: why Africa is rich in natural resources, yet so poor in infrastructural and economic development. He also looked to define what democracy is in Africa compared to developed Western countries. Lastly, he examined natural resources and conflict in Africa. 

Wright will immediately start putting his degree to use with Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group (MCSCG) Virginia Beach, VA, as an Africa region Foreign Area Staff Non-Commissioned Officer. 

What are some highlights from your time at NPS?

Some highlights of my time here at NPS were my admiration for how the school remained agile and quickly adapted to the virtual training environment during the pandemic while still maintaining academic excellence standards. As a member of the enlisted forces, another highlight was working in a collaborative environment with officers from other branches of the U.S. military and foreign nations. Though I was not at NPS as a thesis writing student, I still learned a lot from the professors while sharing my vast knowledge of the African continent and the military experiences I have had for over 20 plus years with others. As a member of the Department of Defense community, I will say that, despite COVID-19, NPS did meet my needs and expectations in education and research programs, which was my most excellent highlight. 

 Why did you initially decide to join the military?

The military was never something I thought of initially. I had a four-year soccer scholarship to college after graduating high school, however, I lost my scholarship after a season-ending injury in a tournament. I had to drop out of college, but had no intentions of staying in my neighborhood and working dead-end jobs like high school peers. So, I grabbed my credentials, walked into the Marine recruiter’s office, and 22 years later, I am still here in uniform.

What are some of the most significant moments in your military career thus far?

There are several moments, the most significant being when I was able to provide humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka after the 2004 South East Asian earthquake and tsunami, and serving as a French linguist in Djibouti, Africa, during the Haitian earthquake relief in 2010. My greatest moments have been the two times I served as an instructor at my primary military occupational school, training future military leaders. I also have to mention getting selected for the Foreign Area SNCO program and being afforded the opportunity to attend one of DOD’s top-level schools (NPS).  

Any goals or aspirations for your career?

The two goals I set out to attain were to make it to one of the highest senior enlisted ranks and to complete my graduate studies. So far, I have achieved both. I have attained the rank of a Master Sergeant, and have two master’s degrees. Despite my career in uniform coming to an end, I still intend to apply the knowledge gained from at NPS and in the Foreign Area SNCO program to continue serving in a future role with the State Department.



Connect with us!

Connect with us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Join our group on LinkedIn
Follow us on Instagram
Physical Address: 283 Cottage Way Monterey, CA 93943 - Mailing Address: PO Box 8626 Monterey, CA 93943